“It’s like Nixon on steroids.”
— Christopher Wylie, 28-year-old whistleblower, on how the shadowy data firm Cambridge Analytica used fraudulently obtained information from Facebook to launch a psy-ops campaign targeting 50 million American voters
Nixon on steroids, indeed. In 1972, the 37th president’s dirty tricksters got caught in the Watergate with some Radio Shack-style gizmos and some badly applied duct tape trying to bug the Democratic Party’s headquarters so they could try to steal the words of one man, party chief Larry O’Brien. That act — and the various cover-ups and sleazy maneuvers that surrounded it — cost Richard Nixon his presidency.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign paid roughly $6 million to a firm founded by a hedge-fund billionaire supporter that used 21st-century technology, subterfuge and out-and-out fraud to essentially steal the thoughts of 50 million Americans — quite possibly you, or your friends and neighbors — to launch a psy-ops campaign against voters, to put Trump in the White House. In other words, multiply Watergate to at least the 10th power.
You might have heard this weekend that Facebook — from whom the data was obtained and where much of the ensuing psychological warfare took place in the summer and fall of 2016 — has now banned the firm, Cambridge Analytica. It was not a bold move by Mark Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth but a cowardly one, taken just minutes before some stellar reporting by the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr and journalists from the New York Times jointly exposed the hijacking of the data and, arguably, the theft of an American presidential election. Facebook’s too-little-too-late action was the ultimate closing of the barn door after the horse has already bolted — the horse being American democracy.
The basics of the story are this: In 2013-14, the young firm called Cambridge Analytica had backing from the right-wing billionaire, Robert Mercer; a rising political force in its association with the Breitbart News impresario Steve Bannon; a bold mission to, in the words of one former employee, “fight a culture war in America” and a scheme to use state-of-the-art Big Data and psychological profiling to win elections with modern propaganda.
What CA lacked, however, was the data the pull this off. That’s when what Facebook’s top lawyer has now acknowledged was “a scam — and a fraud” came into play. Wylie — the young political data maven now turned whistleblower — and the team assembled by Mercer and Bannon turned to experts in “psychometrics” at Britain’s Cambridge University; there, a Russian American (heh … a bit more on that later) professor named Aleksandr Kogan was hired for $800,000. Kogan reportedly then lied to Facebook about his real project — a personality quiz and an app that 270,000 people consented to but which allowed the firm to pull Facebook “likes” and other personal info from 50 million unsuspecting Americans. (The company also seems to have lied to Facebook about later destroying the data.)
According to the newspapers, Cambridge Analytica ultimately created about 30 million usable profiles for voters — who were then targeted in the 2016 election with the kind of psychological warfare that the Pentagon has honed for decades to use on our enemies.
In 2016, the enemy was us.
Indeed, Wylie noted that Cambridge Analytica emerged from a defense contractor called SCL and what it began to market in the mid-2000s was “cyber warfare for elections.” The Mercer-and-Bannon-backed CA was initially hired to work for GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 — Mercer’s initial horse in the race — but the team had switched by summer 2016 to party nominee Trump, which then paid the firm about $6 million.
What does political cyber warfare look like? As you might imagine, pretty ugly. In an election where most voters’ preferences are deeply rooted, a campaign like the one engineered by Cambridge Analytica tried to tap into the psychology of the voters who could most easily be peeled away from Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton — young people who might be convinced to vote third-party, or blacks who’d been enthusiastic about Barack Obama but could be discouraged from showing up in 2016. Data seemingly as trivial as what sneakers or candy bars you like helped develop profiles of the persuadable.
So-called dark posts reminded African American voters about Clinton’s infamous 1990s comment about young blacks whom she labeled “super-predators,” while in specific neighborhoods like Miami’s Little Haiti there were messages linking the Clinton Foundation to post-earthquake problems in Haiti. It’s impossible to know how well these “dark posts” worked but the objectives were certainly achieved. A recent major study by a team of political scientists found that a whopping four million 2012 Obama voters, many of them nonwhites, sat out 2012 and many others voted for third-party candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party, which is what Team Trump and their hired guns at CA wanted them to do. At Trump’s post-election rally in Hershey in December 2016, the then-president-elect bluntly noted that blacks “didn’t come out…So thank you to the African American community.”
There are three big takeaways here. The first one goes well beyond Trump’s election as president. Folks have been warning about this for years, but clearly we have created something of a monster in the rise of social media. Make no mistake: There are many positives you can attribute to sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: reconnecting with friends from yesteryear, getting information about news or sports in real time, or launching powerful social movements. But at the end of the day, a capitalist company such as Facebook and its billionaire founder Zuckerberg have gotten rich by exploiting the essence of our humanity — our friendships and even our personalities — for profit. The Trump-Cambridge Analytica scandal is a two-lane highway to hell — your intimate personal data flowing north to shady operators, then flowing back south as divisive negative politics or even “fake news.” That’s an existential threat not just to democracy but to a broader civil society.
More narrowly, the new disclosures should renew serious questions about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The dual allegiances of the Russian American middleman Kogan — who before hooking up with CA performed at least one research project for the Russian government — should raise eyebrows; so should a CA presentation on its American election work given to top executives of the Russian oil giant Lukoil, which (like most successful Russian businesses) has close ties to its country’s leader, Vladimir Putin. Special counsel Robert Mueller has already indicted 13 Russians and a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” for targeting Americans with bitter messages on Facebook in a way that dovetails with and amplifies exactly what CA was trying to accomplish. Coincidence? Or collusion? That’s a question for Mueller and his team that arguably ranks second in stature behind only: What did the president know and when did he know it?
Speaking of Trump, the CA shenanigans arguably mark the third episode in which dirty tricks or old-fashioned fraud can be tied in some way to his victory. In addition to hijacking the Facebook data, you have the Russian-hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton aides — the computer-era equivalent of Team Nixon’s Watergate break-in — and the strange affair with FBI leaks about a last-minute (but nothingburger) probe of Clinton’s email. Combined, these immoral and unfair stunts surely swung the votes that tipped those three or four crucial states on Nov. 8, 2016. Look, we can concede that most of the 62 million Americans who voted for Trump did so for reasons that — whatever what we think of them — did not involve fraud. But elections are stolen on the margins, and Team Trump has just been caught with its lock-picking tools and its duct tape.
This weekend, just as the Guardian/Times scoop was hitting the fan, Trump and his minions went on something of a bender. His administration almost simultaneously stole the headlines away from the Facebook/CA affair by firing deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe for reasons that are still murky but in a manner that had the grace of a mob hit. Then Trump took to Twitter for some of his most frantic tweets ever about the Russia investigation, going after Mueller for the first time by name just hours after his attorney called for an end to the probe. It reeked of great fear — and that fear is justified. Nixon was taken down by following the money, but “Nixon on steroids” will fall by following the data.